When it comes to narcissists, there is quite a variety in different types of narcissists and there is a large spectrum of narcissistic behaviour that could be shown. This variety in narcissists can make it quite complicated to recognize a narcissist, especially when you’re dealing with a covert narcissist. Most will easily recognize a grandiose or malignant narcissist but recognizing a covert narcissist is more challenging.
Covert narcissism is thus a less obvious type of narcissism, which is because a covert narcissist shows fewer external signs of narcissistic personality disorder. In this article, I will go into signs of a covert narcissist in order to learn to better recognize covert narcissism. I hope this can be helpful to you.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of own importance, lack of empathy and an unhealthy need for admiration and validation. In my article explaining NPD, you can read more about the 9 criteria of NPD. Reading this first can be useful if you want to learn more about narcissistic personality disorder in general before going into the covert narcissist subtype.
Clearly, there is a difference between someone having the actual disorder and a person showing some narcissistic traits. Narcissism is a spectrum disorder and can thus range from mild to severe. Therefore, I prefer to focus on possible narcissistic/manipulative behaviour shown, instead of focusing on whether someone is a narcissist or not.
In the end, it’s most important to decide what you want yourself and how to deal with someone showing certain toxic or manipulative behaviour.
Grandiose (overt) narcissism and vulnerable (covert) narcissism
To explain there exist different types of narcissists, often at least two types of narcissists are distinguished. Those two types, that are both on the other side of the spectrum, are grandiose (overt) narcissists and vulnerable (covert) narcissists.
A grandiose narcissist is most easily recognized, as they tick the more ‘obvious’ boxes of narcissistic behaviour such as clearly being very self-centered, showing aggressiveness, seeking attention outwardly, lacking empathy and showing superiority/dominance in obvious ways.
A covert narcissist, however, is less obvious, tends to be more introverted and will not display their grandiose sense of self-importance. They could appear shy, modest, or as lacking self-confidence. A covert narcissist, however, shares the same traits as an overt narcissist. They are also self-absorbed and have a belief they are better than others but they don’t necessarily show self-confidence.
Clearly, whereas narcissism is a spectrum disorder and different types can be distinguished as well, a narcissist can have both overt and covert ways. As covert narcissism can be hard to recognize, it can be helpful to explore covert narcissism and learn more about this type of narcissism. I will do so by going into 14 signs of a covert narcissist below.
14 signs of a covert narcissist
1. Highly sensitive to criticism
In general, a narcissist can’t handle criticism and doesn’t want to take responsibility or blame for negative things. A covert narcissist can especially be extremely sensitive when it comes to criticism or feedback. Their self-esteem could be easily damaged.
Know that not all highly sensitive persons are narcissistic. With a narcissist, the sensitivity is explained by their superiority complex (a defense mechanism). This sensitivity can play out as them being very defensive when something comes even close to slight criticism. You might not even be aware that something you said could be perceived as an insult.
A covert narcissist can be offended, enraged, or shocked by the idea that someone doesn’t consider them as perfect or doesn’t recognize their value. A covert narcissist will mostly not respond in a direct way, but rather retreat (flight) and deal with it internally. They could also show smugness, dismiss it or respond passive-aggressively (fight). In both situations, they will not express directly and honestly how bothered they actually are by this negative experience.
An important sign of a covert narcissist is passive-aggressive behaviour. The narcissist could use it for a lot of reasons such as to make them look superior, have control, punish you, seek revenge, or in order to show their frustration. A covert narcissist prefers passive-aggressiveness over actually arguing with you.
Similar to the sensitivity to criticism described above, someone showing passive-aggressive behaviour isn’t necessarily a narcissist. With a covert narcissist, their behaviour comes from a place of disguised superiority and feeling entitled.
A covert narcissist could try to kill your ideas with a sarcastic response or disregard it. If you sense something is wrong and you ask them about it, they might act as if it’s nothing or not important. They will never actually explain what’s going on, although their body language or attitude will tell you differently. This discrepancy can be very frustrating.
Passive-aggression can be covert forms of for example frustration/anger, hostility, and learned helplessness in disguise. Examples are that they might try to sabotage a friendship, use blame-shifting, disguised hurtful jokes, the silent treatment, and so forth. I will go deeper into a few of these examples below.
3. Blaming and shaming
A covert narcissist could use guilt to manipulate others. A narcissistic parent could use guilt in order to manipulate their children, especially when the child is trying to create some independence. This guilt could be triggered by passive-aggressive behaviour, self-pity, or showing frustration.
Most covert narcissists have high expectations of others. Therefore, they’re likely to criticize others, gossip, or put others down. As there is a lack of empathy, they have no trouble to address adults as if they are a child or disregard the feelings and needs of others. All this behaviour clearly leads to negative energy surrounding this person.
By putting others down, the covert narcissist hopes to feel better about themselves and possibly feels superior or in control. Putting others down is a form of projection, which I will discuss later in more detail.
A covert narcissist thus shows devaluing behaviour in more covert ways than an overt narcissist. It’s very disturbing behaviour as it’s harder to recognize than obvious devaluing behaviour. They can blame you in a gentle way or behave as if they are the victim of your manipulation or ‘boldness’.
A covert narcissist can be very skilled at projecting and covertly turning things (blame/responsibility etc.) around on you. It will leave you feeling small or guilty. Clearly, this is very abusive and toxic behaviour.
A covert narcissist can use a form of manipulation called triangulation as well. Triangulation is a passive-aggressive manipulation technique used in order to trigger negative feelings in their partners such as jealousy and insecurity. It’s when a narcissist brings a third person into their relationship for abusive purposes such as having power/control, gaining narcissistic supply, and devaluing/smearing their victims.
A covert narcissist uses the more subtle forms of triangulation. An example would be a narcissistic parent always complimenting their ‘golden child’ when in the same room with another child in order to make the other sibling feel small. A covert narcissist could also send in flying monkeys (create external pressure) in order to convince you that you did something wrong and they are ‘victim’ of your behaviour. For more examples of triangulation, you can read my article with 6 examples of narcissistic triangulation.
A desired outcome of triangulation is that you feel anxious, insecure, doubtful, and suspicious about a lot of things. The narcissist will never admit anything and thereby leaves the problem with you.
You can learn more about triangulation in my in-depth article about triangulation and how to deal with it.
5. Silent treatment
The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive form of manipulation and can be very frustrating. This form of abusive behaviour is about gaining a sense of control by avoidance, silence, and/or disempowerment. For a covert narcissist, it can be a way of expressing anger or envy. It could also be used as a form of punishment.
Some examples of the silent treatment are:
– Giving the cold shoulder and refusing to speak to you because you didn’t help with something.
– Ignoring you or only using one-word answers but not telling you what’s really bothering them.
– Ignoring what you are saying and not listening or showing any attention to you at all (neglecting).
– Showing a lack of touch or lack of affection.
There are many forms of the silent treatment, such as stonewalling, lack of affection, sulking and the everyday silent treatment. It’s a way of indirectly hurting you or your importance and it stimulates insecurity. It’s basically negative energy and it can be very draining to experience it.
You can learn more about this type of behaviour and how to deal with it in my in-depth article about the silent treatment.
6. Disguised hurtful jokes or creating confusion
A sign of a covert narcissist could be hostile joking at the cost of others. It can be disguised as sarcasm or more passive-aggressive as jokes followed by ‘just kidding’. Mostly, the jokes or teasing will be repetitive and a red flag is thus when it’s done continuously. It can be very painful and a form of bullying.
A covert narcissist could use disguised jokes or sarcasm to express their anger, disapproval or feelings of being rejected. It’s a way of devaluing others and marginalizing their humanity. It’s thus a passive attack and thereby not recognizing a person as an individual with their own needs and feelings.
They could also try to create confusion when interacting with others. This could be trying to make others doubt themselves and question their view. A covert narcissist could try this in order to exploit others and manipulate them into becoming more doubtful and confused.
If this behaviour is done in a constant matter, it’s a form of gaslighting. This is a brutal form of manipulation in order to make you feel crazy, doubtful, and disconnected with yourself. You can read more about this behaviour in my in-depth article about gaslighting.
A covert narcissist is familiar using projection and projecting their feelings of inadequacy and shame onto you. This can happen both consciously and unconsciously. It’s thus important to be aware of the underlying feeling someone gives you when you interact with them. A person could appear as being kind and humble, while you feel these underlying tensions.
A covert narcissist has trouble with their own high and unrealistic standards for themselves, which can lead to them feeling inadequate. This ‘ failure’ can result in a sense of powerlessness, shame, and/or anger/frustration. They will project these feelings onto others by their behaviour.
8. Passive self-importance (quiet smugness/superiority)
A covert narcissist excels in a certain passive form of showing self-importance. This could be feeling as a misunderstood special person and showing ‘quiet’ smugness and/or superiority.
This underlying feeling of self-importance can be recognized in nonverbal signals. They might show (indirectly) that they are not listening or not interested in what you have to say. They could be busier with their phone, sigh or yawn in an exaggerated way, or simply be unable to keep their focus or attention on you.
You could thus get a feeling that this person observes and judges you, and similarly doesn’t listen to you with (sincere) attention. Signs of this could be a lack of eye contact, distractedness, a condescending glare, showing boredom, sighs, yawns etc. When this person speaks to others, it tends to be or feel judgmental and critical.
A feeling of being misunderstood can arise in the mind of a covert narcissist as to why someone doesn’t recognize that they are more special than others. A covert narcissist can thus appear modest and yet believe within they are superior to other people. Their actions will align with this underlying belief, which can result in them not doing certain things of which they believe it’s beneath them.
This belief of being ‘exceptional’ results in superiority, envy, and entitlement. Beneath this, however, is a vulnerable and fearful true self that requires protection.
A narcissist is very self-centered and when it comes to a covert narcissist, this characteristic shows itself in a withdrawn way. Often, a covert narcissist will quickly decide whether a conversation, person or topic interests them. If they aren’t interested, they will ‘tune out’ mentally. Their focus is with themselves and other things are thus quickly boring or uninteresting.
They might feel as if others are not worth their precious time and attention. You may thus find this person not going deeper into what you said or ask any questions but rather steer the conversation directly back to something about them. Some covert narcissists excel at not acknowledging another person at all (coldness).
10. Withdrawn nature and emotionally unavailable
A sign of a covert narcissist could be a shy or withdrawn nature, where the covert subtype is more introverted and related to more internal experiences. A narcissist has a deep fear of showing their flaws and failures to others and will avoid the chance of exposure.
The passive self-importance of a covert narcissist makes it hard to connect with others in a meaningful way. A covert narcissist will not be able to form genuine connections with others and has problems with forming meaningful relationships.
When considering some of the mentioned characteristics in this article, it’s quite a logical consequence. Obviously, it’s challenging to have a deeper connection based on equality with someone when having a lack of empathy and being very self-centered.
When your sense of self is based upon external validation, it’s quite a fragile situation. To protect their vulnerable self, they might need their smugness to keep a distance from others. It serves as a defense mechanism. From this vulnerability, they tend to distrust others. A covert narcissist could thus avoid socializing in order to stay away from comparing themselves to others, feeling envy, fear, or being anxious.
As a result of the above, some covert narcissists focus on antisocial and self-absorbing hobbies and work. They might avoid human interaction as much as possible and withdraw into their own fantasies.
11. Lack of empathy
A narcissist has a lack of (emotional) empathy. This is a characteristic of both overt and covert narcissists. A narcissist doesn’t care for your feelings and needs and their attention will be focused on themselves.
When dealing with a covert narcissist, there will never be space or attention for your needs or feelings. Sadly, the attention will only be on the narcissist’s feelings and needs.
A narcissist can show some learned (self-serving) empathy or seem as if they are willing to help others out. This giving/caring about others, however, has an intention behind it, which I will explain in the next sign.
12. Giving/caring with a reason
A covert narcissist could disguise themselves as a giver and help others out in order to get a form of recognition or validation. It might appear as if they are giving without intention, or even are empathic, but sadly there is an intention of getting something in return behind it. Therefore, they tend to give in situations in which they possibly get recognition or praise for their behaviour.
A covert narcissist will not give or care about others if they see no use for themselves in it. It’s about them and not about to whom they’re giving. Other motivations could be gaining power over others or to boost their ego.
Giving can also appear in the form of helping without asking and similarly act as if they are ‘suffering’ because of all they are doing for you. An example is a covert narcissist parent that acts as if you should feel guilty for ‘all they have done and sacrificed for you’. It’s trying to create guilt in others for their own choices and behaviour. If giving is conditional, is it even giving? Clearly, it’s not!
If you experience something like this, know it’s essential to not take responsibility for the behaviour of others.
13. Humility / A tendency to put themselves down
A narcissist has a need for admiration and attention, and a covert narcissist could seek this validation by putting themselves down and seeking reassurance. When self-esteem is based upon others, one will search for validation, recognition and compliments.
A covert narcissist could thus modestly share their achievements in hopes of receiving compliments and validation. They could also put themselves down and hope others will deny their statements and boost their self-esteem.
Clearly, this is an unhealthy dynamic. Self-esteem isn’t equal to self-importance. Healthy self-esteem doesn’t require external proof but comes from within yourself. A narcissist lacks truly feeling valuable within. A covert narcissist seeks external proof by putting themselves down rather than by arrogance or dominance.
If a person could validate and appreciate themselves enough, it wouldn’t be necessary to seek approval and favor. Clearly, they do need this confirmation. It makes a narcissist fully dependent on the opinions of others and this results in disturbed energy. You can read more about this subject and the independent and dependent mind (ego) in my article exploring the philosophy of Taoism and narcissism.
14. Depression and anxiety
A person with covert narcissism might experience feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and depression. This is not surprising due to their disturbed reality, withdrawn nature, insecurity and inability to connect with others. A narcissist has a fully dependent mind and therefore disturbed energy.
It all results in unhealthy dynamics and can thus be emotionally draining for the narcissist themselves as well as to their environment. A covert narcissist can’t fulfil their own standards and idealized expectations. They need to deal with a constant fear of failure as well. It can thus be hard to deal with reality, which possibly results in anxiety and depression.
When possibly dealing with a covert narcissist, it’s important to focus on behaviour shown and the effect it has on you. Everyone could show passive-aggressive behaviour sometimes, but it’s essential to be able to recognize certain behaviour and especially whether someone shows manipulative behaviour in a constant manner. Clearly, it’s very unhealthy if you don’t recognize what’s going on and this person is emotionally abusing you without you even realizing it.
If someone’s behaviour causes you to feel guilty, doubtful or shameful, it’s important to ask yourself honest questions about whether this person, in general, has a positive influence on your energy. Are you being treated as an individual human being with your own feelings and needs? Or do you feel pressure/force and a lack of empathy?
If you feel like your energy is being (slowly) drained, you might be dealing with a toxic or narcissistic person. In my article about the narcissist’s web of control, you can find some questions to ask yourself when having doubts about a possible narcissist in your environment.
If you experience or have experienced narcissistic abuse, I advise you to find a therapist for guidance and support.
When dealing with a narcissist, I believe it’s essential to be able to shift the attention to yourself again and work on awareness and setting boundaries. It’s important to be aware of which feelings are yours and what is projected upon you. You might be interested in reading my article about conscious breathing (mindfulness).
I hope this article can be helpful to you. I wish you strength and kindness in the future!
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7 thoughts on “The covert passive-aggressive narcissist: 14 signs of a covert narcissist”
As a person recovering from a covert narcissistic friendship, this article felt like it was written almost exactly about my experience. It is a scary thing because it creeps up so quietly you don’t notice until it’s too late.
Unfortunately, I was the friend that they wanted to emulate, I often joked to my mother and best friend that I was afraid she wanted to kill me and wear my skin like a suit. I am lucky to have friends and family (which she tried to pull into her games to manipulate me) that are understanding of the situation. But to the outside observer or those who do not understand what covert narcissism looks like, it would be difficult to explain. There’s no one big incident to pinpoint where it started going downhill, there was no big blow-up fight. The small silver linings of Covid meant that she was forced out of my life after I had cut her out. There was very little way for her to connect with me. Though she still tries, through my sister-in-law and a few friends, I am thankful though that they are all in the know and have no time for her games.
Reading articles like this helps me solidify that I did do the right thing. That no good could come from that relationship and I am not the one to help or fix her. I have been so much happier and mentally healthy (despite Covid) in this last year without her in my life. So for anyone who reads this article thinking that someone in your life is a covert narcissist,- leave and don’t look back.
Thank you for your response Jenna. It’s great you made this decision to protect yourself and your energy, and that you’re much happier and mentally healthy now! This alone affirms you did the right thing for your energy. It’s very helpful your environment understands as well. It’s hard to recognize such a (covert) situation and I’m glad you did and also took action in response to it. I wish you strength and kindness in the future!
I have known my husband for 40 years and never ever saw him as a narcissistic nan. But when I struggled with alcoholism. He took me to rehab and emptied our house turned my family totally against me. Was willing to put our dogs to sleep and went to all my closest friends and told them how horrible I was and he was done. And when I did get sober he still lied to his family when I wouldn’t come around because of the things sone of them said and the lies he told thrm and I was working in my recovery he couldn’t tell them the truth as to why I wasn’t at a family function. He lied to them or should I say didn’t tell the truth and led them to believe I had relapsed and that’s why I didn’t come. That is when I realized he would rather let ppl think I was drinking then to admit I wasn’t around because of the lies he had told them to get sympathy n play the victim. He was more worried about his aunt thinking he said things about me that weren’t true, he was willing to endanger my reputation I was trying to rebuild, my self confidence which I always had and my sobriety rather than her think he lied. That’s when my eyes opened n I saw what kind of nan he really is. Abd typical stalking old gf’s on Facebook for 7 years and lieing to me about it. I never felt insecure or checked his online stuff n he knew it. When it finally all came out he no longer calls my sister or mother or cares lol because when I finally said I cannot worry about this marriage and safe myself anymore if it had to end to save me then do be it. He changed his thinking but to this day I see all the years I spent putting him n his family first I don’t anymore n I struggle with that but for my dignity this is how it has to be. He kept beating he down about my disease that didn’t develop til my kid life crisis n he even drug he to church to sit behind his high school fantasy every Sunday n she was a recovering alcoholic and he used my illness to his full advantage to talk to her and poor girl she thought she was genuinely helping him. When I hit sober n saw her at a meeting I told her everything truth. He was dying her I was not the crazy jealous wife . That he stalked her bone used all searches to find out her husbands salary n where he worked. He was so embarrassed he never went back to church. Covert narcissism in its purest form
Hi Wanda, thank you for your response and for sharing your story. It’s very disturbing. I’m glad you eventually recognized the situation for what it is. I hope you’re doing okay now and are able to move in a more positive direction and energy. And I hope you’re kind and compassionate to yourself, as your intention (putting him and his family first) at that time was a beautiful intention and only shows your ability to love. I wish you strength and more kindness in the future!
My wife is a narcissist. She used my ten years girl child against me. I want to leave her. But unfortunately because of my child.I can’t.
All the things given by you in this article is true. I am daily experienced this.
After along long time I decided she is such.
Mentally and financially I am suffering.
Please guide me how to avoid her.
Hi Karthik, I’m sorry about your experience. It’s a very disturbing situation. I can only refer you to my articles about the grey rock method for a possible temporary way to interact with her. I doubt, however, whether this will really help you long term. It would be great if you can find local support or a therapist, as you deserve this help. I wish you strength!
Really interesting post!
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